A Comedy of Errors: How the US Government Bungled Helium Production Over and Over

Spectrum Tubes Helium ++

What do balloons, MRI machines, and the Large Hadron Collider have in common? Helium!

These items and a multitude of others require the second-most common element in the universe to function. Although it is generally abundant throughout the cosmos, helium is relatively hard to find on Earth, as its low mass allows it to easily escape the atmosphere.

Helium can be found in a few separate deposits under ground as well as in trace amounts in the atmosphere (5 parts per million) and in underground natural gas deposits (up to 7% of total NG volume). It is also a common byproduct of radioactive decay, as alpha particles.

Since the 1920s, the United States government has held a monopoly on helium production. Helium is crucial for national defense applications such as rocket engine testing and air-to-air missile guidance systems. Thus, the government, through the Bureau of Land Management, began to produce and store it in large quantities at the National Helium Reserve in Texas, at one point amassing over one billion cubic feet of helium.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=646716
CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=646716

In the 1990s, the National Helium Reserve fell into debt to the tune of $1.4 billion due to poor management and increasing costs of helium extraction. Concerned about bloated government, the 1996 Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act, which initiated the shutdown of the National Helium Reserve. The Reserve was required to sell its entire stockpile at below-market rates, finally shutting down operations entirely in 2015. The intention of the Act was to jumpstart the privatization of the helium industry, but things did not play out as hoped.

The National Helium Reserve flooded the market with helium, which drove worldwide helium prices to record lows. Low prices made helium recycling economically disadvantageous, which increased consumption. Most strikingly, private industry failed to step in because low prices made helium extraction and sales unprofitable.

As the National Helium Reserve continued to sell off its reserves and slouch toward its mandated end, an heir apparent in the private sector failed to appear, and scientists began to worry. A panel convened by the US National Resource Council, a branch of the US National Academy of Sciences, recommended that the US Government increase the cost of helium and slow the depletion of the National Helium Reserve. They warned that if the US failed to take action, the closing of the reserve in 2015 could trigger a global helium crisis, and that consequences of such would be dire due to the ubiquity of the need for helium in scientific and and technological research.

Exell Helium Plant, circa 1980. By Federal Helium Program (Bureau of Land Management) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Exell Helium Plant, circa 1980. By Federal Helium Program (Bureau of Land Management) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The US Government took action in 2013 by extending the lifespan of the National Helium Reserve and selling existing helium reserves at market prices. But with private industry failing to identify and extract new helium reserves, helium prices soared and US reserves continued to dwindle. Scientists worried that the United States’ poor management of a finite natural resource would devastate the helium market for years to come.

Luckily, due to a recent discovery, this does not seem to be the case. In June 2016, a team of researchers from Durham and Oxford Universities discovered a massive helium gas field in the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley. The field is estimated to contain 54 billion cubic feet of helium, enough to meet global demand for several years.

Although the discovery of this reserve has inspired hope that more like it exist in the world, that hope should not translate into careless use and management of existing helium reserves. Our current understanding tells us that helium is extremely rare on Earth, so we must consume and regulate helium reserves with that fact in mind, at least until the development of new technology to make alternative helium production economical. Scientists have recommended banning the use of helium in party balloons (yes, seriously) and implementing helium recycling technology to prevent the escape of helium from MRI machines and other such devices.

HeCd Laser via photopin (license)
HeCd Laser via photopin (license)

The latest discovery of helium deposits presents a fantastic opportunity for Tanzania to finance its development rather than falling into the resource curse. An exemplary model of proper resource management can be found in the Norwegian Oil Fund. Norway, upon discovery of its oil reserves, instituted the collection of economic rent based on the revenue generated from oil extraction, plus oil exploration licensing fees. The resulting revenue was then kept in a trust fund and used to invest both within Norway and internationally. As of June 2015, the fund has accrued $873 billion. Given its size and ownership in companies worldwide, the fund has now become an significant player in international affairs. As such, it pursues economic and social justice through its decisions concerning its holdings, even going so far as to exclude ownership in companies that violate its ethical standards.

If Tanzania is able to collect economic rent from the exploration and extraction of its helium reserves, it could likely enjoy similar success as Norway while providing the world with a critical resource.
Our history with helium is a lesson in the consequences when governments fail to properly manage a finite natural resource. As Tanzania begins to manage its vast reserves of helium, we can only hope that they will heed the lessons of successful natural resource management.

Cover image: By Alchemist-hp www.pse-mendelejew.deOwn work, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7601144

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

What if you lived rent-free?

Imagine if you did not pay rent for an apartment, or taxes on your wages. Think of all the excess income you would save, invest, use to take a vacation, learn a new skill, spend on an altruistic project, etc. What would you do with the money?

 

Beach Sunrise Punta Cana via photopin (license)
Image Source via photopin (license)

Some people actually have this luxury. They don’t have to pay rent or a mortgage. They own their apartment building, free and clear, and the property taxes they pay are minuscule. The value of the land under their New York City apartment building just goes up and up in value. As this happens, they are able to charge their tenants more rent.

Good for them, right? But do you know what that means for you? Your rent goes up and up too. It’s not like the landlord really had to renovate your apartment to charge you more. It’s not that they had to build more units to get more rental income. It’s not that they necessarily worked any harder than you. The value of their land just keeps going up, and that means that you are subsidizing their increasingly luxurious life style.

 

29381357345 27b53e0902
photo credit: Donald Trump via photopin (license)

They have money to see a Broadway show and vacation in France precisely because you have to struggle to pay the rent. Wouldn’t it be fairer if everyone paid rent for the space they claimed? If they paid taxes on the rising value of their land, we could use that money to offset taxes on working and exchanging.

 

2016 Commencement via photopin (license)
Image Source via photopin (license)

Imagine if you did not have to pay taxes anymore, and instead, when your landlord collected your rent, they covered those taxes for you with the rent money? It’s not like you would pay any more rent either. In fact, you would likely pay less.

What would you do with all the taxes you saved? What vacations would you take? What new skills and educational opportunities would you seize? What worthy causes would you give to? What Broadway shows would you see? This would all be possible if we lived in a world where land was the primary source of public revenue.

 

Cover image: Image Source via photopin (license)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Can Tiny Homes Solve San Francisco’s Housing Crisis?

“Tiny homes,” residential structures that typically measure between 100 and 400 square feet, have been touted by some as an elegant solution to de-cluttering one’s life and embracing a minimalist lifestyle. Examples have graced the pages of every prominent home and garden magazine, and HGTV has three (yes, three!) shows dedicated to tiny homes. In San Francisco, housing activists and city planners are now looking to the tiny home movement as a potential tonic to the city’s worsening housing shortage.

With a vacancy rate at 0.3% and a population influx to the Bay Area to the tune of approximately 90,000 people per year, San Francisco, known for its stunning Victorian homes and hilly streets, is running out of housing. Chelsea Rustrum, a consultant on the sharing economy, believes that tiny home villages have the potential to increase housing inventory at a greatly reduced cost. Compared with the $1000-per-square-foot cost for traditional construction, the per-foot cost of constructing tiny houses falls between $200 and $400. Eager to develop the first tiny home village in the San Francisco Bay Area, Rustrum has assembled a team of 10 people and is scouting for a plot of land. However, she has run into a problem that plagues most new housing initiatives – zoning.

The tiny homes that Rustrum and her colleagues seek to build violate a number of common zoning rules as set by the International Code Council, a domestic trade group. Most notably, they are below the minimum square footage necessary to be classified by as a residence. Rustrum hopes to overcome such zoning obstacles through negotiations with city governments, but changes to zoning laws have become a flashpoint in the debate over the housing shortage and development in the Bay Area. Homeowners consistently try to stymie new construction because they assume that an increase in population density would decrease their own property values. (In actuality, the opposite effect has been shown to occur: increased population leads to increased land values.)

 

Tiny Houses via photopin (license)

 

Even if zoning obstacles were overcome, could the construction of tiny home villages truly reign in the careening San Francisco rental market? Eric Fischer, a San Francisco resident, recently analyzed 30 years of rental prices (the median rent for a 1-bedroom apartment having reached an astonishing $3,500) and created a model that explains housing costs in the city. According to Fischer, it would take a 53% increase in the housing supply (200,000 new units) to reduce costs by two thirds. Given that the entire land area of the city is 7 x 7 miles, most of which is developed, tiny home villages do not pose a realistic solution in San Francisco County, because there just isn’t enough unused land to construct them on.

The Bay Area, by comparison, is comprised of multiple cities, some of which have far more available land than San Francisco. However, there is concern over the effect tiny home villages would have in these areas A criticism of proposed tiny homes developments is that, though less environmentally damaging than traditional tract home developments, they still represent a form of urban sprawl. And more sprawl is not something that the Bay Area can handle right now. The area’s burgeoning population is already crushing public infrastructure. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), a major transportation system, has $5 billion in unmet capital needs over the next 10 years, and interstate highway commute times are at all-time highs. Any housing solutions that place people further outside of urban centers could add pressure to already strained transportation infrastructure.

 

Nothing Gold Can Stay via photopin (license)
Nothing Gold Can Stay via photopin (license)

 

With this in mind, it would seem that any new housing construction should occur where economic activity is most concentrated: downtown San Francisco. Problematically, downtown areas tend to have the greatest land values, and traditional strategies for construction in the city center tend to be very expensive (using subsidies and eminent domain), politically treacherous (due to entrenched residential and commercial landlord interests), and ultimately ineffective. While tiny home developments might make the area more affordable for a handful of individuals and families, to effectively turn the tide of this crisis and resolve the housing shortage, government officials must take steps to build up housing inventory in urban centers, particularly in downtown areas near the business district. To this end, the city and state must consider a land value tax (LVT).

American political economist Henry George hypothesized that both property taxes and taxes on the value of improvements (structures) discourage new construction, as any residential or commercial development will result in higher overall property taxes. To expedite construction, Henry George recommended eliminating taxes on improvements and shifting the revenue burden towards higher land value taxation (LVT), which would encourage landowners and developers to increase residential and commercial space in order to pay the land value tax while providing them a respectable return as they provide value to others. LVT naturally becomes even more effective wherever land values are higher, such the urban core of cities. Implemented in cities, LVT leads to a substantial increase in both living and working space.

California faces a unique challenge due to the limits imposed by Proposition 13. Overcoming those challenges in the long term would require a difficult–but not impossible–voter-approved constitutional amendment to completely overhaul the property tax system. State legislators as well as regional and city planners would be remiss not to consider the solution of the LVT, which has had demonstrated success in increasing residential space the United States as well as abroad. For the moment, housing advocates have their eyes on Rustrum and her tiny home villages, a pop culture trend that could provide a short-term solution to a steadily worsening housing crisis.

Cover Image: Boneyard Studios. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International LicenseCreative Commons License

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

London Congestion Tax Reduces Traffic Pollution While Improving Infrastructure

Is traffic a daily problem for you? Bad news: If you live in a major metropolitan area, chances are that traffic congestion is only going to get worse. The nation’s roads and highway systems are being crushed as Americans flock to urban areas for economic and social opportunities. In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, traffic on some highways has increased over 25% in the past 5 years. With a cost to Americans of $124 billion a year, plus the unquantifiable impact on quality of life, cities must take action to abate worsening traffic congestion. For some ideas on how to do that, they should look to London.

London is a global financial center with a burgeoning population of over 8 million. As London’s economy and population ballooned in the 1990s, so did traffic, earning the city its reputation as one of the most congested cities in Europe. Government officials took notice and hatched a plan to reduce traffic in the city center, boost ridership of the London Tube and buses, invest in public transportation, and improve quality of life. Their solution? A congestion tax.

 

 

Piccadilly Circus via photopin (license)
Piccadilly Circus via photopin (license)

 

Officials in London created a “congestion zone,” which motorists are charged for entering. First implemented in 2003, this tax was introduced at £5 per day and has since risen to £11.50. Resulting tax revenues, amounting to over £200 million in 2008, have primarily been invested in public transportation improvements. The number of public buses has increased, bus routes have been modified to take advantage of reduced traffic congestion, and roads and bike lanes have been improved.

13 years after its implementation, the congestion tax has been hailed as a success. The number of cars entering the city center has plummeted by 34%, traffic speeds improved between 20 and 30%, and bus ridership increased by more than a third.

The benefits of the tax are not limited to improvements in transit times and increased use of public transit; it has also been a powerful tool for reducing the environmental impact of transportation. The tax has reduced CO2 emissions by a total of 100,000 tons annually, cut fuel consumption by 40 to 50 million liters annually, and led to greater than 15% reductions in atmospheric levels of major air pollutants NOx and PM10 levels.

 

Buses and Bikes via photopin (license)
Buses and Bikes via photopin (license)

 

London’s success has inspired other cities to consider congestion taxes. Singapore and Stockholm introduced congestion taxes several years ago, and Beijing and Mexico City are in the planning phases. Efforts to implement congestion taxes in New York City have typically failed due to partisan gridlock, but have gained momentum in recent months.

London’s congestion tax is a powerful example of the positive urban development that occurs when revenue derived from the value of land is invested in public infrastructure. Traffic congestion is largely a consequence of economic growth, which is made possible by a city’s populace and infrastructure. Motorists enter London for economic opportunity. The congestion tax functions as a mechanism by which the city can capture a portion of the wealth earned by non-residents and create the incentives to effectively align self-interest with the public-interest.

A number of economic scholars have compared London’s taxation system with the theories of Henry George. Henry George, an American economist and political theorist of the 19th century, postulated that land is social capital, and profits drawn from land should be shared by all citizens via the use of land value taxation (LVTs). In the case of London, government officials are taxing the use of land by motorists and distributing that revenue to public works projects designed to increase the quality of life for the city’s residents.

As metropolitan areas across the world see traffic congestion worsen rapidly with intense development, a congestion tax is a proven solution worth considering. Not only will traffic decrease, but cities will be able to re-capture wealth generated by its land and use it to improve the city for all.

 

Cover Image: Street Art: Camden via photopin (license)

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The UK Can Harness Post-Brexit Foreign Investment for Economic Growth

Since Britain voted to leave the European Union, global markets have dropped and people have begun to prepare themselves for a grim possibility: a world with a less stable Europe. But to foreign investors, particularly those with an eye to real estate speculation, the Brexit vote seems to present a golden opportunity. With the value of the British pound falling to its lowest level in decades, overseas buyers have snatched up London properties at a massive discount, with the consequence of an even more overheated housing market.

Significant currency devaluations can have devastating effects on a country’s economy as the costs of imports and exports fluctuates and the risk of inflation increases. For foreign investors, however, currency devaluations create an opportunity to make strategic purchases within the affected country that would not have been feasible before.

Since a dramatic 12% drop in the value of the British Pound Sterling, investors from Hong Kong, the Middle East, and nations with currencies linked to the dollar have begun to buy property in the United Kingdom. This activity has been concentrated in London, where property sales have increased 38% since the Brexit vote. The percentage of recent purchases that have been completed by foreign investors is unclear, but property investment firm Benoit Properties International and real estate consultants Knight Frank have reported a significant surge in purchases by buyers outside of the UK.

 

Brexit Scrabble via photopin (license)
Brexit Scrabble via photopin (license)

 

Foreign speculation in the London real estate market is not new. As the financial center of the United Kingdom and a rapidly growing metropolis, London’s real estate has generally been a safe, albeit expensive, investment. Between 2008 and 2015, investors purchased £100 billion of property across the city. These purchases mean more than lucrative long-term investment strategies – they provide an opportunity for the wealthy of other countries to move their money overseas, a financial strategy that is becoming increasingly attractive as economies such as China’s falter.

None of this is good news for the average Londoner. Foreign nationals have been buying real estate at a faster rate than UK nationals for several years, a trend which has been credited with causing to the steep surge in housing costs in London. Last year alone, average London housing costs increased 10.6% to $681,500 for a single family home, more than twice the national average, which was itself excessive. Renters especially have felt this squeeze, as rents increased 12.5% in the same time period, reaching a staggering £1,500 per month for a 1-bedroom apartment.

Considering the continuing rise of the tide of xenophobia in the wake of the Brexit vote, it’s important to clarify that foreign investors are not the enemy. Rather, they are driven by an economic and real estate system that makes UK property investments lucrative and accessible. The dearth of opportunities to invest gainfully in growing commercial goods and services industries spurs investors toward land speculation, fostering the housing crisis that is unfolding not only across the UK but worldwide.

 

Brexit tea via photopin (license)
Brexit tea via photopin (license)

 

The UK’s leaders must enact policies to ensure that Londoners have fair access to affordable housing. As it turns out, they have many other countries to turn to for ideas. Hong Kong and Singapore have instituted a 15% tax on properties purchased by foreign buyers, which has slowed the rise in housing costs. Australia has instituted a similar tax, citing decreasing affordability of homes while also legally interceding in the attempt by Chinese investment group Dakang Holdings to purchase the Kidman Farm empire, which controls 1.3% of the Australian landmass.

An alternative to such measures proposed by many economists is the taxation of land values rather than traditional property taxation. While other strategies limit land speculation by foreign investors, taxing land values would actually inhibit all speculative land grabs by making the holding of real estate for that purpose unprofitable. Instead, by making the ownership of idle land prohibitively expensive, taxation of land values would spur construction on prime locations, which in turn would decrease housing costs for all.

If foreign investors wanted to make money by purchasing land, they would have to develop that land with residential and commercial improvements. In other words, they would need to put forth effort and bear risk in order to see any returns, just as business ought to work. This would result in a growth of construction activity, meaning more residential units available at lower prices. In effect, taxation of land values would effectively convert the current foreign appetite for British property into a sustainable means for growing the British economy.

 

Has City of London lost its voice with Brexit? via photopin (license)
Has City of London lost its voice with Brexit? via photopin (license)

 

The movement to leave the EU garnered strong support in part for its assertion that too many UK citizens are being left behind economically in our globalized society. As uncertainty shakes the British economy, that problem will likely get worse. UK leaders must act immediately and decisively, and use the tax system to address the disparities caused by land speculation.

 

Cover Image: Dis United Kingdom [Explored] via photopin (license)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Marie Howland, 19th Century Gender Equality Pioneer

Young girls ironing laundry

Howard H. Aiken, a pioneer in computer engineering, famously urged others to “[not] worry about people stealing [your] idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.”

This reminder is useful when considering the reasons that groundbreaking ideas often do not make it into mainstream culture or history textbooks. Marie Howland, a passionate advocate for women’s economic independence in the nineteenth century, is an apt exemplar of Aiken’s claim. A woman of revolutionary ideas, she is hardly a household name. Howland, a white working-class woman, was among the first of both her class and gender to publish a novel in America and to participate in the women’s rights movement by challenging fundamental social conventions that limited the influence of women to the household and domestic sphere. Like other authors such as Jane Austen, Howland was deeply troubled by the way social conventions served to reinforce women’s systemic economic dependence on men. This has hardly been resolved; “equal pay for equal work,” one of the cornerstones of Hillary Clinton’s current presidential campaign, is merely one example of the issues that remain to be addressed towards Howland’s goal of achieving economic equality among genders. What is most compelling about Howland, then, is how relevant her ideas for the economic equality of women continue to be today.

A concise statement of Howard’s philosophy is that she wished to see opportunities for women to achieve financial independence. This idea necessarily challenged traditional boundaries separating the domestic and public spheres. Whereas a man might have various opportunities for wage-earning work outside of the household, a woman’s work was typically constrained to the household and its value not so easily quantified. Early on, this distinction led Howland to embrace the writings of French intellectual Charles Fourier. She admired Fourier’s suggestion that women be empowered to select their work – primarily in a communal setting (phalanx) with other women – and be materially compensated. It is important to distinguish here that while many women in working-class families were, in fact, compensated for employment outside of the household, Howland recognized that this did not absolve them of traditional household duties. Women, in many cases, worked a “second shift” on the homefront, remaining trapped by this economic and social model. As Cliff Cobb states in his introduction to a special issue on Marie Howland in The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, “[T]he only way to let women out of [their domestic] prison[s] was to knock down the walls that have separated the oikos (household) from the polis (public arena), the domestic and the non-domestic spheres.”

 

Woman working at Texaco Refinery
Port Arthur refinery, The Texas Company via photopin (license)

 

The Fourierist model, which remains obscure relative to other alternatives to Capitalism such as Marxism, might best be characterized as a combination of the communal elements of Socialism, with a view of humanity as an evolving entity striving towards a state of universal harmony in accordance to God’s will. Fourier understood the Divine model for social evolution as requiring a move toward communal living, reducing the inefficiencies of individual households by consolidating and redistributing the work required by the community. Notably, domestic work such as cooking, cleaning, and childcare was included in this model. By normalizing domestic work within the community marketplace, Fourier’s plan for communal living also implies a redistribution of the power dynamics that have traditionally separated the genders, privileging white males above everyone else. It was Fourier’s hope that altering domestic work and power in this way would facilitate the sharing of power in other spheres.

Late in life, Howland resided in the Georgist community of Fairhope, Alabama, which was based on the ideas of American political economist Henry George, favoring land value taxation rather than taxation on improvements or property. These ideas, implemented both in the United States as well as abroad, have yielded enormous economic gains. Not surprisingly, Howland found these ideas compelling and even necessary for realizing a more egalitarian world.

 

Fairhope, Albama.
Fairhope, Albama. By Stratosphere (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

 

To be clear, none of this demonstrates that the core of Howland’s vision for economic liberation of women could not be better adopted by our contemporary society. If Aiken’s words are to be believed, we might argue that Howland’s ideas continue to pose challenges so significant that they are resisted by mainstream culture. The virtues of Howland’s ideas lay principally within the uncomfortable questions they pose. It is interesting, for example, to consider the widespread negative perceptions that persist regarding “feminism” as a disruptive – rather than restorative – social influence. The myth of an America offering equal opportunity to all regardless of gender, race, and other minority identifications persists. Which groups stand to lose ground should continuing inequality be recognized, and what type of social and economic justice, as envisioned by Howland, ought to be pursued? The economic theory of great disparity as a necessary evil (social Darwinism) remains so deeply ingrained in our national narrative that it is often revered as unassailable, forestalling conversations that might otherwise pose promising alternatives but that have the potential to alter our current economic paradigms.

If there is anything we can learn from Howland’s ideas, it’s that just work relations cannot be achieved within the Capitalist system, in its current form, nor can they be achieved by simply redistributing property. To secure a just system for women, Howland argues that the caretaking duties that women are often burdened with also need to be redistributed.

-Elizabeth Smith

Cover Image: Ironing Day- vintage stereoscope card via photopin (license)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Berkeley Poised to Address Affordable Housing Crisis With New “Landlord Tax”

Berkeley, California, has long been a bastion for artists, intellectuals, and their progressive ideals. It is home to UC Berkeley (3rd-ranked university in the world), which hatched the politically seminal Free Speech Movement, as well as Telegraph Avenue and People’s Park, epicenters of the counterculture movement of the later 60s and early 70s, and the first enactments of a number of progressive policy measures including a soda tax and the first handicapped-accessible sidewalks. Now, however, skyrocketing housing costs are threatening Berkeley’s inclusive character, as the rising cost of residential rental housing space forces more and more lower and middle-income families to leave.

In 2010, the average monthly rent for a new apartment in Berkeley was $1,975. Today, that number stands at $3,308, a staggering 60% increase in just 6 years. With Berkley’s median household income of $65,283, such staggering rents can easily consume two-thirds of a family’s gross income, leaving little money for other expenditures.

Housing costs in Berkeley are being inflated by forces affecting the entirety of the San Francisco Bay: a burgeoning population, an increase in the number of well paying jobs, and a lack of new housing construction chief among them. A recent survey revealed that 78% of Berkeley residents believe affordable housing is the number one issue the city should be tackling. Elected officials are starting to take action.

 

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63118
CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63118

 

In early June, Berkeley City Council unanimously approved a November ballot measure to levy a 1.8 percent gross-receipts tax on landlord rents. The tax, if passed by voters, is expected to raise $5 million annually, which would then be spent on affordable housing projects. It’s a clever way of circumventing California’s Proposition 13 which, along with a long list of municipal revenue limitations, caps the amount that real estate (encompassing both land and buildings) can be taxed at 1% of market value.

Low taxation on real estate–or, more to the point, on land values–effectively encourages the purchase of land for the sole purpose of speculation. Low property (land value) taxes paired with high taxes on improvements (structures) discourages commercial or residential development of that land, as rising land values reap financial reward for property owners without their having to undertake the risk and trouble of adding any improvements. Often times this means there is little, if any, incentive for property owners to build the quality low-cost housing needed by growing communities. In turn, they benefit from the resulting artificial housing scarcity much more than active building ever would.

In response to these condition and their effects, Stephen Barton, Berkeley’s former Director of Housing, has become a major proponent of what is being dubbed the “landlord tax.” Barton, drawing from the ideas of Henry George, explains that landlords are not creating the value that is leading to skyrocketing rents. Land values are a social product, directly inflated by a growing population and its subsequent economic development, which, in the case of the Bay Area, has in turn been buoyed by the region’s diverse culture and ample public infrastructure.Proposition 13’s limiting effect on the land portion of property taxes has enabled landlords to privatize this socially-created value for their own personal profit.

 

Joe Mabel [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Joe Mabel [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

At present, Proposition 13 allows landlords in Berkeley (and all across California) to capture the increasing land values. When a tenant leaves a unit, even if it is rent-controlled, a landlord has the opportunity to increase the rent as much as the market allows. As a result, landlords have increased overall rents by $100 million annually, an amount well beyond what constitutes a fair return on investment.  “This has been a massive income transfer from tenants to landlords,” Barton said. “It’s deeply hurtful to low-income people.” The result of this excessive transfer of income also serves to gentrify the poor right out of Berkeley.

The this new landlord tax is a distortion of land value taxation (LVT). LVT was originally proposed by American political economist Henry George, who recognized that land values are a social product (affected primarily by the size and productivity of the nearby community) and should be taxed so that their value can be returned to the community. The difference between LVT and the landlord’s tax arises when considering raw, vacant and underdeveloped land. LVT is a tax on land values, independent of improvements, that provides incentive for landowners and landlords to put all land to its best use. By comparison, the landlord tax depends on gross receipts, punishing those that increase tenancy and rewarding that hold their land idle, which is not a good way to encourage walkable and well-maintained communities with ample housing.

Taxes on land, in comparison to the ubiquitous tax on improvements we have in the United States, has been shown to actually increase the supply of both residential and commercial space by preventing the privatization of of socially-created land values by landlords. A sufficiently high LVT makes the ownership of land expensive, which then forces the landowner to develop the rental space needed to pay the higher land value tax. Conversely, the tax on improvements has the opposite effect, penalizing the construction of rental space by increasing the amount of one’s property taxes at pace with an increase in building.

 

"Trust Your Struggle" via photopin (license)
“Trust Your Struggle” via photopin (license)

 

The Berkeley Rental Housing Coalition, a landlord’s organization, says the proposed tax is too burdensome. They plan to put a similar, albeit smaller, tax proposal on the November ballot. Charlotte Rosen of East Bay Housing Organizations fears that two landlord tax measures on the ballot could split the vote and cause both measures to fail, which would be the landlords’ first preference. If the landlord tax measure proposed by the Berkeley City Council passes, cities across the Bay Area will be watching closely to see whether the new policy does actually stem the housing crisis.

Interested in helping Berkeley City Council pass this measure? If you are local, contact the Council and see how you can help get the word out! Another way to help would be to modify Proposition 13 to avoid loophole abuse by helping organizations like Make It Far and Daughters for Charity.

The best way, though, to help everyone would be to support broad implementation of Land Value Taxation, which may well require altering or even repealing Proposition 13. Everything else is either a band-aid or a half-measure.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Housing Advocates in New Orleans Take on Short-Term Rentals

Eleven years after the federal levee failures following Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, the city’s tourism industry has rebounded to pre-storm levels. In 2014, 9.52 million people visited New Orleans and spent a total of $6.81 billion, the highest recorded tourism spending in the city’s history. But while the revenue from increasing tourism has been a boon to the city’s economy, the market for affordable housing has been strained as property owners and investors increasingly convert residential properties into short-term rentals.

Short-term rentals are furnished homes rented to tourists as an alternative to hotels. Although they have existed for some time, websites like Airbnb and VRBO, which make it easy for homeowners to connect with those seeking accommodations, have led to a rapid proliferation of short-term rental units over housing for the city’s workers. While they benefit property owners with a source of additional revenue and are often less expensive for tourists than a hotel, these short-term rentals are decried for straining the housing market in cities with limited housing stock.

This trend suggests that homeowners, despite the city’s economic resurgence, are finding it necessary to generate additional income. This may result partially from a lack of economic opportunity in other sectors, forcing property owners to venture into the short-term rental market. New Orleans renters have also suffered displacement as investors and landlords, seeing bigger dollar signs in reach, convert entire properties to short-term rentals, often evicting long-term tenants.

 

New Orleans my love via photopin (license)
New Orleans my love via photopin (license)

 

Housing advocates across the country, particularly in San Francisco and New York City, have rallied against this practice, citing increasing rents and a trend of landlords removing properties from the residential rental market to use them solely as short-term rentals. In New Orleans in particular, where rents have increased 20% over the past 14 months, shrinking housing inventory is squeezing out the lower-income renters and prospective homeowners who are already struggling to find affordable housing.

Such short-term rentals, though prevalent, are illegal in New Orleans. Local ordinances state that an entire home may not be rented for a period of less than 30 days, and citations can result in financial penalties in the amount of $500 or more. However, the city lacks the resources and personnel to enforce these laws. Of an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 illegal short-term rentals, only 72 properties received citations in 2015.

New Orleans housing advocates, concerned about the effect of these rentals on housing stock and rising rents, have issued recommendations for how the city should manage these properties. They recommend that legal short-term rentals, defined as the rental of a room within a home versus the entire home, be subject to taxes, the revenue from which would be used to construct low-income housing. This would be equivalent to introducing a new sale/income tax hybrid for homeowners seeking to create the value or income that some need to make ends meet. For illegal short-term rentals, housing advocates are requesting assistance from sites such as Airbnb in identifying them and recommend that fines be increased from the current $500.

 

Hard Rock on Bourbon Street via photopin (license) The tourism industry in New Orleans is driven by the culture created by the permenant residents.
Hard Rock on Bourbon Street via photopin (license) The tourism industry in New Orleans is driven by the culture created by the permanent residents.

 

With rents rapidly inflating, New Orleans must take immediate and drastic action to ensure that housing remains affordable for its citizens. The proliferation of short-term rentals–and its negative effects–stems from the rising popularity of New Orleans as a tourist destination, the lack of alternative income-generating opportunities, and the lack of any incentive system for landowners to build the necessary structures to increase in the city’s housing capacity.

The current rise in land values, a socially-created product of the city’s diverse population, manifests as increasing rent, which is a major draw for landlords. This means that this increased value, created by the community, is being captured by landlords rather than the community itself.

The government must enact policies that re-invest the rising value of land (created by city’s permanent residents) back into the city for the people. The best approach would be to implement a sufficiently high land value tax (LVT) as originally proposed by American political economist Henry George. George recognized that land obtains its value from the government granting legal privilege to exclude others from a portion of our common inheritance, the Earth. It is thus necessary for those benefitting from this exclusive use to compensate those they exclude.

 

Street musicians in New Orleans
Dancing in the streets via photopin (license) Local street musicians are a major draw for tourists in New Orleans.

 

In comparison with the ubiquitous property tax (which includes a tax on buildings) common in the United States, LVT has been shown to actually lower speculation of both residential and commercial space by preventing the privatization of socially-created land values by landlords. A sufficiently high LVT makes the ownership of underdeveloped land expensive, which then makes it necessary for landowners to develop rental space to generate revenue to cover the higher land value tax–especially when the land is most valuable, as in any city. By contrast, the portion of the traditional property tax which falls on improvements has the opposite effect, penalizing construction of residential and commercial space by increasing the amount of one’s property taxes via the higher tax on improvements.
Without the developmental incentives of land value taxation, the success of New Orleans’ expanding tourism industry will continue crowding its underdeveloped housing market. The cruelest aspect of this is that travel and tourism workers, who are the backbone of the entire industry and often musicians and artists, often find themselves priced out of their own neighborhoods as the tourism industry that depends on their labor booms. Efforts to enhance the affordable housing supply, therefore, are essential to maintaining the stock of service workers, artists, and musicians who entice tourists to love, and go spend their money in, New Orleans.

 

Jim Fairchild of New Orleans Steamcog Orchestra
Photo by Michelle Gomez. Jim Fairchild of New Orleans Steamcog Orchestra
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Rudy Giuliani Tax Break Continues to Hurt Tenants and Help Landlords

New York City is the poster city for rising rents. Given current trends, don’t expect that to change any time soon. New York’s municipal leaders, however, have not been idle in addressing this. The City and State are actively pursuing measures such as implementing city-wide rent freezes to slow rising rents. Yet, with so much money at stake in the rental and leasing sector, there are those who seek to create and exploit loopholes. New Yorkers are now fighting back against a bill that, due to such a loophole, not only failed to preserve and improve affordable housing but gave landlords and developers millions of dollars in tax breaks.   

In 1995, the New York State legislature sought to revitalize Lower Manhattan, which was riddled with aging buildings and had few development projects on the horizon. A proposed bill gave developers tax incentives if they converted old office buildings into apartments. In exchange for these tax incentives, landlords would limit rent increases, therefore assuring reasonably affordable housing stock for the foreseeable future. It seemed like a win-win situation for developers and tenants alike.

Hours before the bill was set to pass, Republican lawmakers pulled it from the voting schedule, citing the need to consult Rudy Giuliani, New York City’s mayor. Giuliani wrote a letter to Republicans stating that an exemption should be granted to units that initially rent for greater than $2,000 per month. Republicans reinterpreted the rent-stabilization component of the bill by introducing a reading of Giuliani’s letter into the public record just before the final vote. The bill, 421-g, passed 53-1.

rudy via photopin (license)
rudy via photopin (license)

Between 1995 and 2006, before the law expired, 421-g helped create close to 10,000 new rental units in Lower Manhattan. However, nearly three-quarters of those units were not rent stabilized because they initially rented for more than $2,000 per month. So while 421-g accomplished its goal of sparking revitalization in Lower Manhattan, it did not protect tenants as intended. And even though the law expired in 2006, some buildings continue to benefit from tax breaks that totalled nearly $75 million in 2015.

Some legal experts believe that developers have misused the law at a large cost to the city and tenants. Lawyers claim that the intent of the state legislature was to encourage the creation of rent-stabilized housing units by offering tax incentives. Therefore, having 75% of units created under this program exempt from rent stabilization not only defies the spirit of the law but is costing the city tens of millions of dollars each year in lost tax revenue.

There is substantial debate regarding whether or not the law has been applied properly, and it is centered around one major issue–namely, the exemption. The bill was not officially amended before it was passed to stipulate exemptions to units that initially rent for greater than $2,000 per month. That policy was instated by the attachment of the letter from Rudy Giuliani recommending the exemption.

By David Shankbone - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13842042 Jimmy McMillan founded The Rent is Too Damn High Party and ran for Mayor of New York in 1993 and 2013
By David ShankboneOwn work, CC BY 3.0 Jimmy McMillan founded The Rent is Too Damn High Party and ran for Mayor of New York in 1993 and 2013.

Multiple lawsuits have been filed against landlords by tenants alleging massive rent overcharging. Decisions from the bench have been varied. In one instance, a judge ordered Skyline Developers to re-instate rent stabilization status on a number of its rental units, citing the Giuliani interpretation of the law as invalid. Another judge came to the opposite ruling on a similar case with developer UDR.

A number of other lawsuits are working their way through the courts, and legal scholars are hopeful that clarity will finally be reached regarding proper interpretation of the law.

That said, there are better ways to promote the creation and preservation of affordable housing units. Common Ground NYC activist Scott Baker argues the following:

If the city wants to have affordable housing AND new building AND condos people can afford to buy AND a reliable and large revenue stream to replace many if not most taxes, there is only one proven way to do this: The Land Value Tax.

It works like this: over a period of time, phase out taxes on buildings and replace them with taxes on location. This discourages hoarding and inefficient use of location because there is an increasing tax on that, while it encourages building because there is no tax on that (eventually).

Every location is to be taxed at its full rental value. This means more apartments, which means lower rents and costs due to competition.

Park Slope (9th Street, Brooklyn) via photopin (license)
Park Slope (9th Street, Brooklyn) via photopin (license)

The idea for taxing land values originated with classical political economists like Adam Smith and were popularized globally in the 19th century by two-time New York City Mayoral candidate Henry George. Today, economists refer to Land Value Taxation (LVT) as the most efficient of taxes, meaning that it is difficult (if not impossible) to evade taxation or paying what is owed to society. That’s because land, unlike money, cannot be moved, hidden or tax-sheltered, a quality that would have made LVT succeed where 421-g failed.

In retrospect, 421-g was designed to legislate additional affordable housing into existence–contrary to the demands of the market and their underlying forces, and regardless of any shortages this may cause. Rent controls also have the pernicious effect of privileging older residents at the expense of younger residents.

By contrast, the function of land value taxation is to make the ownership of raw and underdeveloped land prohibitively expensive. This encourages landowners to make use of the space in order to accrue the rental income necessary to pay the land value tax.
Consistent with Baker’s statements, this would effectively turn the housing market into renters’ market due to the increased supply of housing and working space, leading to increased competition to attract renters. Thus,we could expect lower housing costs while realizing the improvement of the conditions of affordable housing. Ultimately, LVT achieves organically what 421-g was designed to accomplish artificially.

Cover image: Good morning, New York via photopin (license)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Rent Subsidies Fail to Help Homeless in Los Angeles

Laura Luevano, a homeless woman struggling with severe diabetes and arthritis, failed to find an apartment in Los Angeles after searching for several months–despite holding a federally subsidized rental voucher. She is one of more than 2,000 people in Los Angeles who remain homeless despite holding these rental vouchers. Her story represents one of many that demand a fair and just solution.

In Los Angeles, a city known for its pristine beaches and Hollywood glamour, 35,000 people are without homes, and the situation is not improving. Just last year, the  homeless population increased by 5.7%, which has been deemed a crisis by Peter Lynn, the executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. City and state officials are hoping that rent vouchers will help abate this crisis, but that measure so far has shown poor results.

Rent vouchers are, in the eyes of officials, a quick and easy solution to the increasing homelessness problem. The voucher, subsidized by the federal government, can be used to pay rent to a landlord. But quick fixes often fail to provide long-term solutions, and the rent voucher approach has been no exception.

 

Homeless man and his dog sleeping via photopin (license)
Homeless man and his dog sleeping via photopin (license)

 

While vouchers increase the capability of the poor to access housing, they provide minimal incentive for landlords to increase the residential housing supply. Thinking in terms of supply and demand, vouchers serve to increase demand, but a lack of increase in supply to meet that demand ultimately defeats the program’s purpose. People tend to attribute the lack of supply to zoning and rent control–and indeed these issues are a part of it. However, the most overlooked factor is that the supply of land is fixed, and thus the owners can make an easier buck just sitting on undeveloped property and waiting for it to rise in value.

As a result of these simple market dynamics, recipients of vouchers are facing a harsh reality – the Los Angeles rental market is crowded and extremely competitive. LA County currently has very little housing inventory available for immediate rental – an incredibly low 2.7% rental vacancy rate. At a vacancy rate below 5%, the power dynamic between landlords and renters shifts dramatically towards landlords. Landlords can afford to be selective about tenants, choosing those that are least likely to fail to pay their rent. Often, the tenants that lose out are veterans and minorities.

These landlords have been reluctant to take on the homeless as tenants, citing concerns that they will be troublesome tenants and will fail to pay rent. But the County is taking action to erode these barriers by providing financial incentives to landlords. Through the voucher program, the city guarantees first and last months’ rent, as well as a security deposit, to landlords. Santa Monica County has gone a step further and gives landlords a $5,000 bonus for accepting rent vouchers.

In general, subsidies such as guarantees and bonuses have much the same effect on housing supply as vouchers. Subsidies of all kinds spur demand without any significant increase in supply, resulting in even higher rents for everyone. This goes to benefit landlords while hurting renters.

 

FOR RENT - Central Avenue via photopin (license)
FOR RENT – Central Avenue via photopin (license)

 

The city is educating landlords to reduce stigma and make the benefits of accepting vouchers clear. Vouchers are guaranteed rent, and voucher tenants have substantial support from the city in the form of case managers and tenant mediation, helpful in the case that a disagreement arises. The city also hopes that appealing to landlords’ sense of civic duty will increase their willingness to accept vouchers. Convincing hesitant landlords, however, is just one piece of the homelessness puzzle.The best additional measure would be one that encourages building more housing units.

Rent vouchers cannot be applied to 1- and 2-bedroom apartments that rent for greater than $1,150 and $1,500, respectively. With housing costs in Los Angeles soaring, and new rentals averaging $2,094 per month, federal vouchers cannot be applied to a large swath of available housing. Some counties have eased restrictions on these caps but have still not seen an increase in the number of voucher recipients renting apartments. This further validates the notion that this is a supply problem that calls for incentives to build the necessary units.

The voucher program is, in addition, actually squeezing low-income families that do not qualify for vouchers, creating a problem where there previously wasn’t one. When a homeless person receives a voucher, they are competing for the same rentals as low-income families, says Santa Monica housing administrator Jim Kemper. So while the program has had some success in taking homeless people off the streets, it is often at the expense of the working poor, making a bad situation even worse. Legal analysts have long criticized the City and State for focusing on voucher programs instead of building new units at the rate necessary to decrease rents. Ultimately, for the voucher program to succeed, Los Angeles must enact policies to ease its housing shortage.

 

Haley Pk 01 via photopin (license)
Haley Pk 01 via photopin (license)

 

To address the housing crisis, Los Angeles should consider implementing a land value tax (LVT) to replace its current, traditional model of limited property taxation, which may well require changing California’s constitution via voter initiative. In the late 19th century, political economist Henry George observed that a tax on property improvements reduces a landowner’s incentive to build, as improving the value of his or her property would increase the amount of taxes owed. Henry George hypothesized that, by eliminating the tax on improvements and implementing a relatively high LVT–which depends only on location value and surface area–landowners would be incentivized to increase residential and commercial space in order to create the necessary revenue to pay the LVT while generating desired return on investment.

Despite the proven success of the LVT in several countries around the world, Los Angeles cannot, at present, implement such a change. The California constitutional change known as Proposition 13 makes it exceedingly difficult to enact any measure of change to either land or building value taxation. Enabling such changes would require either changing or circumventing Proposition 13’s limitations.

At present, the human cost of inaction is quite severe. While a reaching an effective long-term solution requires bold measures, the humanity in us demands that we commit to positive change for all.

 

Cover image: Renting Property via photopin (license)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail